Part 2. Horses
In Monroe, Louisiana, vehicles cramped up everywhere you looked. Fields, parking lots, gas stations, medians, sidewalks, alleyways, every inch of grass, every speck of pebble, all the churchyards and backyards and front yards near porches.
Trucks, mostly. Boxy and dented. Later, Trump would tell the crowd, "Your car insurance is the highest in the world, your taxes are horrible." Maybe that's why all these trucks were so old.
Many of the vehicles had Trump 2020 stickers layered over Trump 2016's, and those "This is my family unit" decals, But instead of goofball avatars, the family members were represented by various firearms. Kids were pistols. Mom was a 12-gauge. Dad was an AR. Obviously.
By the time fellow journalist Jade Byers and I found a parking spot under an overpass, the media entrance had been closed for 30 minutes. So we cursed back and forth as we shuffled. Then we halted and stood gawking at the scene on the lawn outside the Monroe Civic Center. It was a labyrinth of fencing and barricades and lawn chairs and flags and people with dreams about the red, white, and blue.
And these people were pumped. They pronounced this place "MUN-roe Lu-zee-ANNA" and they were in for quite a show. Like Trump's shout-out to Conan, the dog who was injured while attacking Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi during the Special Ops raid of an ISIS compound. Trump would tell it like a New Yorker.
"Conan is coming to the White House very soon," he said, grinning. "I said 'Bring him now'. They said, 'Sir, he's on a mission.' I said, 'You gotta be kiddin', come on, give him a couple day's rest — please.'"
The rallygoers would love Trump's spit-takes on the impeachment and the whistleblower, both of which he mocked whenever he could. That included Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden, or as Trump called him, "Sleepy Joe Biden who's dumb as a rock."
There was also this moment of Trumpian spontaneity, where he points at a random audience member, and asks, "How old is your son?"
It was as the wildcard improv that his supporters loved, respected even. Plenty of people hated it, too. But this was not an occasion for them.
In "Art of the Deal," Trump wrote
You can't con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.
Outside the arena, all things paid homage to the American flag. Blue. Red. White. The only acceptable colors. Blue. Red. White. And I mashed the speeding ticket in my pocket, grimacing like a hippo.
Food trucks lined the sidewalk and they were raking in corporate-function money. Same for the makeshift booths with Trump apparel, flags, lawn chairs, blankets, various other regalia. Things nobody needed, but everybody in attendance wanted, or already had. I recognized some of the vendors from previous rallies.
Waved and smiled, and they, too, in turn.
If it were raining, they would sell umbrellas and raincoats. In power outages, flashlights. In an apocalypse scenario, even then, as the world around us melted, they would hock some useless what-nots that everyone thought they needed.
All around them stunk wet cardboard. Modeling their own merchandise, like disappointment in the form of a person, they wore outfits that did not fit them in the slightest. I felt great sadness for them. But it dissipated in a whir, because hustle is hustle is hustle.
Near the arena entrance, a Jumbotron blasted some sort of pro-Trump footage as trashy Dirt Rock blared. It shook the ground because, man, those were some massive speakers. $20,000 worth, minimum.
"How many decibels you think that is?"
Jade nodded and smiled and said, "Yeah yeah, little brother."
With the exception of President Trump's off-the-cuff remarks, every Trump rally goes more or less the same. Which I find even more fascinating than if each were unique. The way thousands of people act exactly like thousands of other people acted, but in a different city. And they the same as the ones before them, and so on. All of these people who have never met, connected.
This is just one way that Trump rallies resemble major sporting events.
And now, the rally-goers were pre-gaming. Without fail, a giddiness rattled the air. A visceral nonstop buzz. It happened every time. Everyone in line acting like they were about to see Evil Knievel ramp his flaming dirtbike over AC/DC going "THUN-DER" as Clint Eastwood fires .50-caliber rounds into piñatas of Hillary Clinton and George Soros, at midnight on New Year's Eve, releasing Blue-Red-White streamers and USA confetti and everywhere you look it's ice-jammed kiddy pools full of Bud Light tallboys and GOD BLESS AMERICA. Which, anyone who has a problem with that scenario is no fun, in my opinion.
And Trump was that important to them.
Later that evening, when Trump brought the Louisiana politicians onstage to speak, the audience grew restless. They wanted Trump. They needed the maniac. Their maniac. The New York firestarter. The "you're fired" maestro. Once he returned, they erupted again.
Halfway through his speech, sweat-drenched people shuffled out but were replaced immediately. Later, the rows began really emptying out. Trump had dunked, had performed all the tricks to their liking. They were satiated, like a hometown crowd in the fourth quarter of a lopsided game.
I asked two mounted police officers where was the media entrance. Right away, they got annoyed. Inconvenienced. Pissed, if I can say so.
Like, who were we? And why were we bothering them? Giving us this attitude while they were literally on their high horses.
They were annoyed with us? Undoubtedly. In those boots? All spit-layer shiny?
So I backed away, mumbling nonsense because that'll put an end to any conversation real quick.
And the Mounties flared their nostrils and yanked their horses' reigns and grimaced like we'd ruined their days. I hope we did, reader. It grits me now, writing this.
Just know that we got to leave. Meanwhile, they had to stay, flanked by mounds of horses**t.
We found the entrance, at the back of the arena, away from everyone, only police at guard posts and Secret Service wherever. But, to get to it, we had to cross an empty parking lot, unpeopled like a wasteland, surrounded by yellow tape and barricades and "DO NOT ENTER" signs, which, naturally, we strolled right past. Because this is America and we were press and also we were emboldened by above-mentioned catastrophes, run-ins with sassy enforcers of the Law.
As soon as we crossed the barrier into the parking lot, 300 yards from the entrance, a Secret Service agent viking-rammed at us in a golf cart, full speed, shouting, "No access, no access."
"Chill, my man," shouted Jade.
"Yeah yeah, chill, baby, chill."
Several more Secret Service appeared, stony and virile. To this day, it is not clear where they had come from, only that, suddenly, they were there. Now, I loved that. Like, there we were in the middle of an action film.
The highest-ranking agent barked orders at the two policemen who had just gawked at us as we strolled by them. The agent brooded militarily, in his officious uniform, bulletproof vest patched with government words. He was pissed that we had the gall to show up late then expect to get in.
He kept saying, "Just wait in line like the rest of the people here! You have got a better chance of getting in that way."
Then he shooed us away from the entrance and out of the parking lot, and we stood at the precipice with the two local policemen.
They chatted with Jade as I sent deferential, apologetic, and, to be frank, rather unmanly emails to various Trump staffers who were inside.
The two local policemen didn't understand why we weren't giving up. Hadn't we heard the Secret Service, that there was no way we were getting in?
"It's a matter of journalistic integrity," I said, chin raised like an actual journalist, a New York Times snob, not really sure what I meant or why I said it. But I had seen journos from Washington Post do it. But it felt weird, posturing like that. So I exhaled my gut and cut the act and, boy, did it feel good.
"God bless America," I shouted, slapping the air. And, in that setting, the random outburst was neither strange nor unexpected.
Same as the state trooper from earlier, the officers' vague apprehension morphed into a weird kind of respect when I told them where I worked. They seemed secretly thrilled. And surprised. But, also like the trooper, a bit confused.
Neither of us looked like journalists, at least not the shrubby, humorless types at these events, who frowned smugly the whole time in their tweed blazers and their thick-rimmed glasses and their head up like the rest of us stink. So what, even if we do! Now write a sanctimonious op-ed about that, Sir Peter Baker.
We certainly did not fit the part for a conservative outlet. And what was that about Forrest Gump and Barney the Dinosaur? They shook their heads, then nodded, then spoke to us without looking, a warmth to their voice, but also confusion, but also enjoyment, there under the quiet tree slopes.
This was a reaction I'd gotten my whole life, but especially the last few years, as I followed various cultural figures around the country, in bars, on campuses, in theaters and houses. Puzzled interest. Bewilderment. And, around Jade, my weird buzz was amplified, as her dragon energy fused with my dragon energy and we channeled a Walt Whitman vibe.
By accident. But shamelessly, of course.
Later that night, after Trump's speech closed with the MAGA chant, and after the customary playing of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," another Rolling Stones song began. I struggled to place it. A patter of bongos.
"Please allow me to introduce myself…"
Damn it all, it was the song about Lucifer!
"Oh now come on," I said, exhausted by the interplay of Heaven and Hell all day. Then, on our way home, we would pass a gutted amusement park full of ghoulish, melting, neon-bright statues. Toy-store apparitions. All off-brand cartoon characters, like the Chuck E. Cheese ensemble, but without motor function.
The policemen pussyfooted around politics. Badly. Told us several times that police aren't allowed to be political, let alone attend a rally.
"This is as close as I'll ever get," said the taller one, with a feigned Clark Gable suavity that was actually lonesome and pointless. "No political events for me."
This again? Now it really steamed me up. Wasn't this a violation of our nation's ideals? Didn't his citizenship outrank his profession? Every American had a right to be as political or apolitical as they wanted. Where were we, China?
So I told the men that it was a travesty of justice, how they risked their lives for the community yet couldn't be politically active, and announced that I'd write a heart-stirring article about their plight. For a moment, I knew what it felt like to be Celine Dion.
Then, realizing what I'd done, I back-stepped. Said, "Well, maybe. At some point. If I can. Eventually. Is possible."
"It's the law," they said, with a matter-of-factness that was, frankly, quite annoying.
Coincidentally, after that night's rally, Louisiana State Attorney General Jeff Landry reversed this policy, which it turns out actually existed, just in time for the Shreveport rally.
The men didn't blink when a military truck rolled by. As tadpoles of smoke jittered behind. Around the corner, a Lynyrd Skynyrd booming. Blaring at folks in a barely-moving line. And it had to be "Free Bird." Some of them were drunk.
Eventually, I got an emoji in a reply email. "Be there in 3 mins."
Two minutes later, one of the Trump staff waved us to the entrance, and we crossed the sacred parking lot. She laughed and playfully admonished me, then left us to at the metal detectors and the long white foldable tables where we emptied our pockets and everywhere I went people asked why did I need so many digital recorders? Mine is a sacred duty, is why.
As you'd imagine, security at presidential events is flawless. An entire intelligence and military apparatus which accompanies the president. Wherever he goes, he brings a snow-globe version of our country. The arena had become a fortress. And we had found a way in.
So when we saw the Secret Service guard again, the one who shooed us like stray cats, with his bulletproof vest with "SECRET SERVICE" sewn into the front, he was annoyed.
We had broken the rules. And that was supposed to mean goodbye, tough luck, get good. Yet here we were, a couple of underdressed no-goods. Polite like the rules didn't matter. Or maybe the guy was busy protecting the most important man on earth and two twerps were needlessly throwing gas on his fire.
New installments are coming out Mondays through Thursdays leading up to the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. Check out my Twitter. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org